The Anti-Semitism Behind the Assassination of Walther Rathenau

Gary Herzberg '10

At 10:45 a.m. on June 24, 1922, Walther Rathenau departed his house in his open car. Headed to work, the Foreign Minister of the Weimar Republic turned at the corner of the Wallotstrasse onto the Königsallee. As Rathenau finished the turn, a six-seated dark gray automobile pulled up alongside of Rathenau's car and then cut him off. Three men were in the large vehicle. One of the gentlemen lifted a submachine gun, pointed it at Rathenau, and fired five times. A second gentleman threw a hand grenade into Rathenau's car. The six-seated vehicle sped away; Rathenau died.[i]

Anti-Semitism was a factor in the assassination of Walther Rathenau. Even Rathenau was aware of his vulnerability due to his Jewish heritage. Speaking of his religion, Rathenau confided to a friend, Albert Einstein, that he felt he was representing a German populace that did not fully accept him.[ii] In a letter to a confidante, Rathenau lamented, "My heart is heavy.... [W]hat can a man like that do in this paralyzed world with enemies all around?".[iii] Rathenau's religion certainly made him susceptible to the torrents of anti-Semitism in the Weimar Republic. Yet claiming that assassins murdered Rathenau solely, or even primarily, because of his religion would be misguided. The Organization Consul, members of which murdered Rathenau, preached anti-Semitic doctrine, but within a broader nationalistic framework aiming to restore dignity to Germany in the aftermath of the First World War. Many Germans were concerned with Germany's national reputation. As Foreign Minister, Rathenau had a stake in shaping Germany's post-war reputation. Although one cannot divorce anti-Semitism from the nationalistic desires of many German citizens, Rathenau's murder should be interpreted largely as a result of deep dissatisfaction with the Weimar government, and not purely as an act of anti-Semitic violence.

Anti-Semitism in the Aftermath of the First World War

Slurs against Rathenau often incorporated anti-Semitism. For months prior to his assassination, Rathenau had received death threats, many of them inveighing against his Jewish heritage. Plots against Rathenau's life were so numerous that German police instructed him to carry a pistol with him at all times.[iv] Members of the Upper Silesian Selbstschutz, a domestic military organization, would chant, "God damn Walther Rathenau. / Shoot him down, the dirty Jew."[v] This quotation is telling not in its hatred of a government figure, given the rampant domestic unrest of the time, but rather in the agitators' channeling of their anger into an anti-Semitic catharsis. As Historian Carole Fink remarked, "Rathenau, who was about to plead for a defeated, and largely unrepentant Germany, risked disappointment and danger for Germans, for Jews, and for himself."[vi] Rathenau's Jewish background evidently made him particularly susceptible to ridicule. In fact, bands of German students had chanted from the outset of Rathenau's tenure as Foreign Minister, "Strike down Walther Rathenau/ The God-damned Jewish sow!".[vii] Threats against Rathenau's life had a distinctly anti-Semitic tone.

However, the frequent politically motivated murders of non-Jews in the early years of the Weimar Republic suggest that anti-Semitism was not the only force that provoked widespread dissatisfaction with Rathenau. Rathenau's assassination perhaps marked the nadir of a four-year string of high profile murders in the Weimar Republic. Self-professed German nationalists carried out most of the murders of over three hundred government officials and radical activists between 1918 and 1922.[viii] Political figures including the Majority Socialist leader in Bavaria, Erhard Auer, were targets for assassination.[ix] Insurrections grew commonplace as domestic frustrations generated massive instability during the early years of the Weimar Republic. Indeed, a professor with the University of Heidelberg remarked in 1922, "[P]olitical murder has gone from being a heroic deed, to becoming a daily act, an easy source of earnings for 'impulsive customers.'"[x] Blame for Germany's post-war turmoil continually found targets. Two radical German nationalists unsuccessfully attempted to assassinate Philipp Scheidemann, Social Democratic ex-Chancellor of the Weimar Republic, by spraying prussic acid in his face.[xi] The assassination of Mathias Erzberger of the Centre (Catholic) Party transpired at the hands of two other radical German nationalists who blamed Germany's post-war humiliation on Erzberger for his role as Imperial Secretary of State in negotiating an armistice.[xii] Anti-Semitism plainly was not the only factor that motivated unrest in the early years of the Weimar Republic.

Dissatisfaction with Rathenau

One terrorist group, the Organization Consul, targeted its nationalist energies at many Jewish political figures in the Weimar government and was ultimately responsible for the assassination of Rathenau. Despite their targets, the Organization Consul operated within a broader nationalistic framework that strived to do more than eliminate Jews in government. In fact, members of the Organization Consul had also murdered the Catholic Mathias Erzberger.[xiii] The Organization Consul's radical nationalistic motivations are exemplified by the fact that the organization was an offshoot of the Ehrhardt Freikorps, which had directed the Kapp Putsch in March 1920.[xiv] The Kapp Putsch was an attempt to overthrow the government of President Friedrich Ebert and to enact a dictatorship under Wolfgang Kapp. When the Kapp Putsch failed, the Weimar government attempted to dissolve the Ehrhardt Brigade.[xv][xvi]The ideology of the Organization Consul operated under a rubric of radical German nationalism, of which anti-Semitism was a part. The oath that the Organization Consul leadership mandated overtly mentioned nothing of anti-Semitism, instead stressing German blood: "I declare on my honor that I am of German descent."[xvii] For the Organization Consul, however, nationalism implicitly meant combating the presence of Jews in Germany. One of the organization's bylaws espoused a "spiritual aim" of "warfare against all anti-nationalists and internationalists; [and] warfare against Jewry."[xviii] Plainly, the Organization Consul juxtaposed a Jewish identity with anti-nationalism in Germany thus making anti-Semitism more complex than a blind hatred towards Jews. Therefore, despite Rathenau's eager contention, "[M]y religion [is] that Germanic faith which is above all religions,"[xix] the Organization Consul's credo of conflating Jewish descent with anti-nationalism in Germany was insurmountable for Rathenau. The bylaws of the Organization Consul served as a linchpin for Jewry's association with traitorousness. However, many members of the clan had formed political bonds and a few of the leaders of the Ehrhardt Brigade clandestinely established the Organization Consul, named after "Consul Eichmann," which was an alias of Hermann Ehrhardt, the leader of the Ehrhardt Brigade.

The members of the Organization Consul certainly were not the only Germans who desired for Rathenau to be ousted from the Weimar government. Notably, Karl Helfferich also campaigned to remove Rathenau from his post as Foreign Minister. Helfferich, who served as Germany's Secretary of the Treasury at the beginning of the First World War, remained an ardent nationalist and became a steadfast critic of the leadership of the Weimar Republic.[xx] Helfferich criticized Rathenau in regard to Germany's policy on reparations—in early June of 1922 Helfferich delivered a speech in the Reichstag in which he invectively asserted that Rathenau was "utterly ruining Germany and the German people in subservience to the Entente."[xxi]

Rather than concluding that Helfferich targeted Rathenau because of the latter's religion, one must take into account the context in which Helfferich stated his views. An analysis of the words that Helfferich used to derogate Rathenau in the Reichstag suggests that anti-Semitism did not principally motivate Helfferich; rather, Helfferich espoused a widely shared discontent with the operations of the Weimar government. In a speech criticizing Rathenau, Helfferich condemned Rathenau's foreign policy for "[bringing] poverty and misery on countless families, [driving] countless people to suicide and despair, [sending] abroad large and valuable portions of [Germany's] national capital."[xxii] On the prominent stage of the Reichstag, Helfferich did not enounce anti-Semitic diatribes. Instead, Helfferich's perhaps latent anti-Semitism was entwined with his discontent with Rathenau's policymaking. Although a critic of Helfferich, following Rathenau's assassination, accused Helfferich of advancing "secret or semi-secret Chauvinist, Nationalist, anti-Semitic and Monarchist organizations,"[xxiii] anti-Semitism was evidently not Helfferich's core concern. Moreover, Rathenau was not Helfferich's only political enemy; Helfferich lobbied against the non-Jewish Erzberger as well.[xxiv] Further, it would be unfair to conclude that anti-Semitism stood at the root of all of the grievances of Rathenau's detractors. Historian Carole Fink described most citizens of the Weimar Republic in 1922 as "frightened" about the future of the Weimar Republic, and that not all Germans "sought the reduction of 'Jewish power.'"[xxv] Thus, while anti-Semitism was interwoven with public discontent with Rathenau, many Germans were more concerned with perceptions of Weimar's execrable governance than with Rathenau's Jewish background.

Rathenau's Assassins

The anti-Semitic sentiments of Rathenau's assassins were decidedly more acerbic than the views espoused by Helfferich. The plot to murder Rathenau appears to have begun in April 1922, when Erwin Kern, an ex-naval officer, gathered a few comrades to discuss his perspectives on the political situation of the Weimar Republic.[xxvi] Despite limited documentation on Kern's particular views—he committed suicide before police could apprehend him following the assassination—Kern appears to have been motivated in large part by the anti-Semitic text, Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Kern claimed that Rathenau "was one of the 300 Elders of Zion committed to taking over the world."[xxvii] Kern certainly had radical views: he asserted that Rathenau "wanted to bring Germany under the influence of the Jews."[xxviii] Rathenau's Jewish heritage helped to make him a political target for Kern.

Despite Kern's seething anti-Semitism, the motivations that Kern appears to have had for assassinating Rathenau were more nuanced than a simple hatred for Rathenau's Jewish background. Kern appeared to passionately care about Germany's political reputation, resenting the humiliation to which Germany had been subjected in the years after the Great War. That is, swayed to murder Rathenau not simply because of anti-Semitism, Kern was "fanned by Nationalist agitation into a fervor of hatred against Jews and the Republic."[xxix][xxx] The amalgam of zealous patriotism and anti-Semitism that Kern professed is captured in Kern's final words, yelled to police from his perch inside of a tower in Saaleck Castle in Naumburg, just before he shot himself: "Long live Ehrhardt!".[xxxi] As elaborated upon earlier, the Ehrhardt Brigade and the Organization Consul championed German nationalism, viewing anti-Semitism as one salient hindrance to developing a respectable, powerful German state. As virulently anti-Semitic as Kern was, and as motivated as he was to assassinate Rathenau because of the latter's Jewish blood, Kern had grand nationalistic motives as well. Kern apparently hoped that the assassination would incite a putsch.[xxxii] Anti-Semitism was a significant component of Kern's radical nationalism, and was fused with it, but certainly did not comprise the whole of it. Kern contended that, because of Rathenau's Jewish heritage, the Foreign Minister would betray the Fatherland. In fact, to generate support for murdering Rathenau among his Organization Consul comrades, Kern alleged that Rathenau had made a secret agreement with the Entente that would deepen the humiliation of Germany, and would make Germany further subservient to the Entente.

Kern's co-conspirators in the murder appear to have been characteristic members of the Organization Consul, eager to rid German politics of Jews, but chiefly motivated to protect and restore dignity to the German nation. Next to Kern, Ernst von Salomon was the leading conspirator in the plot to assassinate Rathenau.[xxxiii] Von Salomon, in describing his motivation to murder Rathenau, asserted, "Scheidemann, Rathenau, Zeigner, Lipinski, Cohn, Ebert... must be killed, one after the other. Then we shall see whether or not there are uprisings in the Red Army, the Independent Socialist party, and the Communist party."[xxxiv] Von Salomon appears to have been suspicious of a Communist plot to take over or undermine Germany. He evidently suspected that many Jews and non-Jews alike were players in this conspiracy. In contrast with Kern, then, von Salomon did not largely focus on Jews in his calculations to protect Germany.[xxxv] Instead, von Salomon contended that Jews were one enemy among the broader Communist enemies of Germany.

Less is known about the other conspirators in the plot against Rathenau's life. Hermann Fischer killed himself in the same tower that Kern did, with no documentation of his particular views other than that he screamed from the turret of diehard allegiance to the Organization Consul (see Figure in Appendix).[xxxvi] Hans Stubenrauch, according to Kern, was merely a "handy tool, who would do as he was told and ask no questions."[xxxvii] The other notable players in the assassination of Rathenau—Ernst Werner Techow and Gerd Techow—deflected blame onto Kern when tried in court.[xxxviii] Yet one could reasonably expect the Techow brothers to deny culpability when legally confronted; their anti-Semitic views are thus unclear. Nonetheless, the plot to murder Rathenau appears to have been primarily the creation of Kern, fervently desiring to purge a prominent Jew. The other conspirators in the assassination plot certainly appear to have been anti-Semitic, but there is not enough evidence to draw a solid conclusion.

Reactions in the Weimar Republic to the Assassination of Rathenau

Apocryphal accounts assert that many Germans celebrated the elimination of a Jew from government, suggesting that anti-Semitism was commonplace in Germany in 1922. Nobel Prize-winning novelist Thomas Mann alleged that he overheard a professor exult that there was "one less Jew!"[xxxix] On the day of Rathenau's funeral, Heidelberg's Nobel Prize-winning Professor of Physics, Philip Lenard, apparently forbade students to skip his lecture "on account of a dead Jew."[xl] These caustic comments vivify the fact that a London-based newspaper, The Spectator, reported in Rathenau's obituary that his assassination was "as little a surprise as a murder can well be."[xli] Even if Rathenau's assassination was not a foregone conclusion, a palpable amount of Germans harbored anti-Semitism.

Yet as pronounced as anti-Semitism was among some people during the early years of the Weimar Republic, these malicious anecdotes ignore the fact that anti-Semitism was not necessarily a dominant public attitude. Isolated rumbles of glee following Rathenau's assassination, and even perhaps the predictability of his murder, should not cloud the fact that many Germans considered Rathenau's death to be a tragedy. Hundreds of thousands of Berliners watched Rathenau's funeral procession as the cortege passed through the Brandenburg Gate.[xlii] One spectator melodramatically, but no less tellingly of the widespread grief surrounding Rathenau's death, commented, "Four deep they marched in their hundred thousands, beneath their mourning banners... passing like a portent silently along the great thoroughfares lined by immense crowds, wave after wave, from the early afternoon till late into the June sunset."[xliii] Against the specter of Professor Lenard's anti-Semitism, German trade unions, comprising roughly 200,000 workers in Berlin, declared a day of mourning.[xliv] Many Germans citizens who were unable to attend the funeral convened en masse in Hamburg, Munich, Chemnitz, Eberfeld, Essen, and Breslau to honor Rathenau.[xlv] As marked as anti-Semitism was among some Germans, many other Germans plainly respected the fallen Jewish leader. Anti-Semitism evidently did not overwhelmingly grip Germany in the early years of the Weimar Republic, as it did under the Nazi regime a decade later.

Conclusion

There is debate over the role that anti-Semitism played in the assassination of Walther Rathenau. No doubt anti-Semitism was a motivating factor for Erwin Kern and his co-conspirators. No doubt many Germans were anti-Semitic. Yet one must understand that there was severe political unrest in the Weimar Republic between 1918 and 1923, which derived in large part from national humiliation following Germany's defeat in the First World War. In the Weimar Republic after the war, anti-Semitism and German nationalism were often entwined. Anti-Semitism suggested that Jews did not represent the interests of Germany. In turn, the assassination of Rathenau must be viewed in terms of an amalgam of anti-Semitism and national unrest. Rathenau's murder was not purely an act of anti-Semitism, but rather occurred within a broader context of deep public dissatisfaction with the Weimar government. 

Appendix

The grave of Hermann Fischer and Erwin Kern in Berlin

The grave of Hermann Fischer and Erwin Kern in Berlin. Retrieved from Axis History.

References

Brown, Cyril. "Rathenau Slayers, At Bay in Castle, Kill Themselves." NYTimes.com. The New York Times, 19 July 1922.

Fink, Carole. "The Murder of Walther Rathenau." Judaism 44.3 (1995): 259-269.

"Freikorps Units." AxisHistory.com. 26 August 2009.

"Germany: A Crash." Time.com. Time Magazine, 5 May 1924.

Gumbel, Emil Julius. "Four Years of Political Murder." The Weimar Republic Sourcebook. Ed. Anton Kaes, Martin Jay, and Edward Dimendberg. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1994. 100-104.

"It Just Happened." Time.com. Time Magazine, 10 January 1955.

Kessler, Count Harry. Walther Rathenau: His Life and Work. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1930.

Mommsen, Hans. The Rise and Fall of Weimar Democracy. Trans. Elborg Forster and Larry Eugene Jones. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

Stern, Howard. "The Organisation Consul." The Journal of Modern History 35.1 (1963): 20-32.

Waite, Robert G. L. Vanguard of Nazism: The Free Corps Movement in Postwar Germany. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1952.

Notes

[i] Kessler 356-7; Fink 264

[ii] Fink 263

[iii] Ibid., 262-3

[iv] Kessler 341

[v] Ibid., 346

[vi] Fink 263

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Gumbel, Four Years of Political Murder

[ix] Mommsen 47

[x] Gumbel, Four Years of Political Murder

[xi] Stern 29

[xii] Kessler 345

[xiii] Ibid., 348

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Stern 21

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Ibid., 22

[xviii] Waite 214

[xix] Ibid., 219

[xx] Time, 1924

[xxi] Kessler 352

[xxii] Quoted in Kessler 354

[xxiii] Kessler 359

[xxiv] Time, 1924

[xxv] Fink 266

[xxvi] Kessler 348-9

[xxvii] Fink 263

[xxviii] Kessler 351

[xxix] Kessler 349

[xxx] Ibid., 351-2

[xxxi] New York Times, 1922

[xxxii] Stern 28

[xxxiii] Stern 27-8

[xxxiv] Quoted in Stern 23

[xxxv] In fact, for years von Salomon had a romantic relationship with a Jew (Time, 1955).

[xxxvi] Stern 27-8; New York Times, 1922

[xxxvii] Kessler 348

[xxxviii] Kessler 349-50; Stern 29

[xxxix] Fink 264

[xl] Ibid.

[xli] Ibid., 259

[xlii] Ibid., 264

[xliii] Kessler 358

[xliv] Fink 264

[xlv] Ibid.

 

Gary Herzberg is a senior Honors Economics major and Psychology minor. He wrote this paper for Professor Pieter Judson's course, "Modern Europe, 1890 to the Present." Assigned to write a final paper on whatever subject from the course interested him, Gary, in contrast to his own expectations, concluded that anti-Semitism was not the motivating factor in the assassination in 1922 of Walther Rathenau, Foreign Minister of Germany.